Dipping into the archives

For genealogists, there’s something holy about the times we gain access to original source matter. Letters, photographs, maps, family Bibles, gravestones, newspapers, visits to old homes and meetinghouses or neighborhoods of our ancestors can all add to our understanding. When we examine these documents and artifacts with our own eyes, rather than copies or interpretations by others, details can pop up that would otherwise go unnoticed. And, when it comes to source documentation, the older it is, the more reverential we become.

On a trip to Guilford College in North Carolina, for instance, examining the original 1764 disciplinary actions around the marriage of George Hodgson and Rachel Oldham, I noticed the erasure of the letter m in one minute – something I’d never see on microfilm – as well as the cross-through of first and insertion of second in their cousin relationship in another minute, something that might well be edited out of a written transcript, yet the latter is evidence of a discrepancy between the books of Quaker discipline used by Nantucket Quakers and those from Pennsylvania as they melded in North Carolina.

Likewise, holding the two folio volumes of Joseph Besse’s 1753 A Collection of the Sufferings of the People called Quakers, for the Testimony of a Good Conscience, from 1650 to 1689, which I’d pulled down from the shelves in an Ohio Friends meetinghouse and was allowed to take home(!) provided many details on my family lines through that period. I must confess looking in awe at bits of gold leaf and leather cover stuck to my hands.

While we commonly traipse to special libraries and museums for these opportunities, it’s also possible to encounter them in a cluttered small-town facility, especially when a local authority is willing to provide free assistance. As an example, I’ll tout the ways the Brookville Historical Society provided great perspective on my Pennsylvania Dutch ancestry in Montgomery County, Ohio.

Of course, the archives might also have microfilm you’d find few other places. For Quaker researchers, the Swarthmore College archives provided both access to William Wade Hinshaw’s cabinets of filing cards that became the classic six-volume Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy as well as microfilm of records held in Britain. Still, some crucial data for Orphan George, his siblings, and parents might be uncovered in the original pages that carry only a “too faint to microfilm” tag. If anyone’s going to London and wants to do us a big favor, please check in.

Which reminds me, there are some details I want to clear up in the full North Carolina minutes, which Hinshaw simply indexes. Next time I’m back?

~*~

If you’ve been doing genealogical research, you’ve no doubt come across similar experiences. Tell us of your moments of awe in dealing with source materials. How much is a matter of preparation? And how much is an element of surprise? Have you ever hired a genealogical researcher? How satisfied were you with the findings? What advice would you have for others?

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